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Teachers unions are ‘thrilled’ by Gov. Cuomo’s education agenda, but school funding remains in play

PHOTO: Philip Kamrass- Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo
Governor Andrew Cuomo during his 2018 State of the State address.

Just three years ago, when Gov. Andrew Cuomo was locked in a ferocious policy battle with the powerful state teachers union, he mocked those whose only idea to improve schools is “more money, more money, more money.”

All that extra funding had ever achieved, he said then, was mediocre academic results, “a larger and larger bureaucracy and higher salaries.”

But now, as Cuomo prepares to seek a third term this fall and eyes a potential presidential bid in 2020, he’s changed his tune.

In his agenda-setting State of the State speech last week, he proposed a slate of uncontroversial, union-friendly education proposals — the continuation of a yearslong shift away from the controversial policies involving teacher evaluations, charter schools, and other issues that put him at odds with teachers unions in 2015.

Most significantly, he’s dropped the argument that New York gets too little in return for the amount it spends on schools, instead calling last week for the state to continue its “historic investment in public education.”

However, it remains to be seen whether his rhetoric will translate into a big boost in dollars. The state faces a budget crunch and looming federal spending cuts, which has Republican lawmakers calling for fiscal restraint. Meanwhile, advocates question how serious Cuomo is about sending more money to schools.

So far, we have no reason to think the reality of his budget will meet the rhetoric,” said Billy Easton, executive director of the union-backed Alliance for Quality Education.

Despite his past wariness about unchecked education spending, Cuomo has actually expanded that part of the state’s budget over his two terms as governor.

Last year, he negotiated a $1.1 billion hike in state education aid, which he touted as the “largest investment in the history of the state.” Over the past seven years, he has boosted school spending by more than $6 billion to $25.8 billion last year — its highest level ever, a Cuomo spokeswoman pointed out.

However, advocates are still smarting from Cuomo’s (ultimately unsuccessful) attempt last year to make changes to a formula designed to funnel money to high-poverty school districts. Advocates said the changes would have allowed the state to withhold funding that those districts are owed under a decade-old lawsuit, but officials disputed that claim and said the governor still planned to give high-needs schools their due.

In last week’s speech, Cuomo railed against “funding inequities” and called for increased aid to poor districts. However, last year’s battle over the funding formula has left advocates doubting Cuomo’s sincerity.

“So far with him, school aid has been an exercise in the ‘hunger games’,” Easton said. “If he’s just going to give a little more to the neediest districts but still leave them way underfunded, then he’s just playing games.”

State officials said any suggestion that the governor has underfunded schools is “patently false.”

If school-funding advocates remain leery of Cuomo, the teachers unions — once the governor’s fiercest enemies — have mostly made peace with them as they rally around a common enemy: President Trump and his allies in Congress.

“We’ve had differences in the past. We’ve had fights with him,” said Michael Mulgrew, president of New York City’s teachers union. But they are now united in their opposition to President Trump’s agenda, which he called “an existential threat to our core principles.”

“We’re working together,” said Andy Pallotta, president of the state teachers union, in a separate interview. He said the union is “thrilled” with Cuomo’s move in their direction.

Cuomo and the state legislature must still hash out this year’s budget, the largest chunk of which traditionally goes to schools. So far, state Republicans, who control the senate, have sent mixed messages on spending.

Carl Marcellino, who chairs the senate education committee, told Politico New York: “For the most part, education will continue to grow.” But Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan has urged caution about increasing spending. On Tuesday, he proposed a series of tax cuts, which could restrict revenue to the state.

Whatever the outcome of this year’s budget negotiations, some observers remain skeptical that Cuomo is truly committed to a labor-backed education agenda centered on increased spending.

“I’m not sure that he’s more progressive — I think he’s simply highlighting a more progressive agenda,” said David Bloomfield, a professor of education, law, and public policy at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. “To my mind, he’s the same old Cuomo.

exclusive

Walton memo recommends charter advocates do more to persuade Democrats and appease unions

Governor Charlie Baker speaks during an announcement regarding Charter Schools at Brooke Charter School in Boston, Mass. on October 8, 2015. (Photo by Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Charter advocates in Massachusetts need to better galvanize charter teachers and do more to convince Democrats if they want to win future fights, recommends a memo commissioned by the Walton Education Coalition.

Earlier this week, Chalkbeat reported on part of the memo — a postmortem of a high-profile effort to raise the cap on Massachusetts’ charter schools — and has since obtained additional pages, which appear to make up the entirety of the report. (The Walton Family Foundation, which is legally separate from the Walton Education Coalition, is a funder of Chalkbeat.)

The final pages highlight challenges that charter advocates will likely face in the state and offer a playbook for moving past their recent defeat — though it’s far from clear whether these strategies will be successful.

The report recommends mobilizing teachers who support charter schools, acknowledging the widespread opposition to the 2016 ballot initiative among Massachusetts teachers, who were trusted in their communities.

“If the opposition is on the ground, they must be matched on the ground, by equally trustworthy validators,” concludes the report, which is dated March 2017.

Another potential counterweight: parents.

“If parents can be mobilized to voice opposition, teachers may listen and break from the pack,” it says. “Alternatively, research should be conducted to identify a voice, alternative to teachers, that can be trusted on education reform.”

The report acknowledges the challenges in persuading Democrats, who overwhelmingly opposed the referendum, known as Question 2. In the future, charter advocates may need to push their messaging to the left, the report suggests.

“Advocates should test owning the progressive mantle on education reform and charters: this is about social justice, civil rights, and giving kids a chance,” it recommends. “While this is a problematic frame for the electorate as a whole, it may speak to the values of a Democratic electorate.”

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who is especially unpopular among Democrats, just adds to advocates’ challenge. “As Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos begin to champion school choice, we need to separate Democratic goals and motivations from theirs in left-leaning states,” the report says.

The partisan divide is opening up in national polling and playing out in local politics. The latest example is in Colorado, where the state party recently passed a resolution highly critical of Democrats For Education Reform.

The memo recommends that charter advocates try to appease their opposition by pushing for additional spending on all schools. Research has shown that the expansion of charters comes at a significant price for district schools, which was a key issue in Massachusetts and elsewhere.

“By giving a little to everyone, and sweetening deals with additional funding, the narrative that new charters will ‘take’ from current schools becomes less relevant,” the memo says.

In Massachusetts, it’s clear that charter advocates have a long way to go to change the narrative in the state. Earlier, the report notes that that there was “such a fierce opposition that No on Question 2 signs were seen in January [2017] at the Women’s March in DC.”

Read the full memo below.



Digging in

‘I do not plan to resign,’ McQueen tells lawmakers over latest testing missteps in Tennessee

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen testifies Wednesday before state lawmakers about technical problems that stalled students' online TNReady tests this week. Beside her is Brad Baumgartner, chief operating officer of Questar, the state's testing company.

Candice McQueen adamantly told state lawmakers Wednesday that she will not step down as Tennessee’s education commissioner over the state’s bungling of standardized tests for a third straight year.

One day after House Democrats called for the embattled leader to resign, McQueen reported that students were testing successfully online on the third day of TNReady. She said the problems of the first two days had been addressed — at least for now.

The commissioner opened a two-hour legislative hearing with an apology to students, parents, and educators for technical problems that stalled testing and affected tens of thousands of students this week.

“We were completely devastated when we heard that districts were again having technical issues yesterday,” she said of issues now being attributed to a “cyber attack” on the data center operated by testing company Questar.

She reported speaking with the head of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation about a possible criminal investigation — but that jurisdictional issues may prevent that since Questar’s data center is located in Minnesota. Immediately, she said, the state will work with Questar to hire an independent investigator.

Rep. Mike Stewart

That plan angered Rep. Mike Stewart, a Democrat from Nashville, who fired off the opening question that set the tone for most of the day’s dialogue.

“Could you answer the fundamental question why you should not use this hearing to resign right now, based on these consistent failures?” Stewart asked, citing problems that go back to 2016 when Tennessee canceled much of TNReady after the state’s first attempt at online testing collapsed.

“I do not plan to resign,” McQueen responded, adding that she expected to power through the next three weeks of testing with “continued improvement and success.”

At her side was Brad Baumgartner, chief operating officer of Minnesota-based Questar, which is under a $30 million annual contract with Tennessee’s Department of Education that expires this year. He took responsibility for this week’s testing failures.

“I think it’s important for members here to understand that the department did everything that they could to thoughtfully plan for this administration, as did the commissioner,” Baumgartner told lawmakers.

“We own the last couple of days,” he added.

That prompted Stewart to ask McQueen why the company that’s acknowledging mistakes is also spearheading the investigation into them.

"Honestly, I can’t think of a single entity less qualified to investigate this problem than Questar, which has consistently failed."Rep. Mike Stewart, D-Nashville

“What I heard is that I don’t have any information, but I want to make an excuse for the person who hired us and gave us a bunch of money,” Stewart said. “… Honestly, I can’t think of a single entity less qualified to investigate this problem than Questar, which has consistently failed.”

McQueen said the state and Questar will consult with the TBI about bringing in a third-party investigator, and she pledged to ask Davidson County’s attorney general to request a TBI probe. (After the hearing, she formally made that request.)

She added that she was open to the idea of suspending accountability measures for one year and holding students, teachers, and schools harmless based on this year’s tests, if that is the will of the legislature. But state lawmakers, who are expected to wind down the 2018 session next week, would have to authorize that change since it’s now part of state law.

In contrast to Stewart, Rep. Mark White came to McQueen’s defense and urged her to dig in her heels.

“Don’t you dare consider resigning,” the Memphis Republican told the commissioner. “The easy thing to do is quit and give up when the going gets tough.”

He recounted how Tennessee was blasted in 2007 for its low academic standards and dishonesty in reporting that its students were doing well on state achievement tests when they were tanking on national tests.

“We were failing our students 10 years ago,” said White, calling the testing problems “hiccups” and hailing the state’s more rigorous standards.

“[Today] we are the fastest-improving state in the nation. We didn’t get there by pushing back and giving up and throwing our hands up and saying, ‘Oh it’s too hard.’”

A former classroom teacher and university dean, McQueen was appointed education chief in late 2014 by Gov. Bill Haslam. On Tuesday, a Haslam spokeswoman said the Republican governor has “complete confidence in Commissioner McQueen.”

You can see McQueen’s presentation below: